12 Classic Agile Principles Translated for Educators | Jessica Cavallaro | 11 Min Read

November 23, 2022

Bringing Agile to education means developing and driving your course with intention. Lessons are not copied from Internet sources or designed on the morning of class. A level of flow must be achieved within the learning objectives that build knowledge and skills acquisition throughout a unit, a semester, and/or the year. Being intentional and mindful of the skills you are trying to develop becomes a daily task. You must be able to zoom in and out over the length of the course to ensure that learning is meaningful and deep. The lessons are didactic and build on each other, so students understand the importance of what they are doing.

Let’s see how the classic business principles of Agile apply to educators:

  1. Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through the early and continuous delivery of valuable software.

In education, the highest priority is the student. The student must be learning and acquiring skills on a continuous level. That means building new skills through scaffolding, expanding content beyond words in a textbook, and applying it to the current world, constantly assessing and reflecting. Through reflective practices, students recognize that their skills and knowledge bases are constantly improving and building upon themselves. No matter their age, students know that their teacher is genuine and working hard to deliver the kind of education they deserve.

This also builds a high level of trust between the students and the teacher. Students know the priority is to deliver useful knowledge and skills continuously. They can expect their teacher to never come to class without a plan or have them do busy work to fill time. Their assignments are genuine learning experiences built on previous content or skills base.

  1. Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.

Students have to work through the content, developing skills along the way and creating authentic assessments. Students and teachers must be flexible throughout this journey regarding their final product. The “competitive advantage” is a personalized approach to education. When we value learning instead of products, students can build on their schema, making unique connections, and building deeper understanding.  The product can change as long as students are learning, creating connections, and building skills.

  1. Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference for a shorter timescale.

Students should constantly be moving forward in their education, and there should be real artifacts of learning as they gain knowledge. This is seen in learning, where students work through a large project but complete pieces along the way. This process of completing work helps students develop the skill of breaking large projects into smaller tasks, organizing their time, and learning about the issues of procrastination. Teachers can constantly assess learning by small check-ins with students to reteach, refocus, or stretch the student’s learning in the process instead of grading and offering advice at the end.  What students are working on and the time frame for handing in work depends on the teacher, unit, and students, but it is a must for successful agile learning units.

  1. Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.

Throughout my career, I have worked with teachers that assume I hand out a poster board project, sit back, and nap. They assume that because I am not lecturing daily or grading handouts, I am not working as hard as a traditional teacher. Of course, this could not be further from the truth. After implementing Agile in my classroom,  I meet with each team and do more small-group instruction than I have in my entire career. I work daily with all students, both in person and virtually, to help guide, explain difficult concepts, brainstorm, and coach. I have been able to build stronger relationships with all of my students and ensure that every single student gets my undivided attention every day. That quality education would be difficult to replicate in any other way.

  1. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

This agile principle is about building strong relationships and creating a learning space that is highly communicative and trusting. Whenever a teacher builds a unit, they base it on the needs of their students and help motivate them to reach their learning goals. The place that needs more attention is trusting students to get the job done. This principle pairs well with delivering artifacts of learning frequently. Twenty students cannot be launched into a project ignored, and the learning outcomes will magically appear. However, if projects are built that pull in student interest and create checkpoints to monitor and reflect on progress, we should trust the work will get done. This is part of building student agency and time management skills. Students will never build these fundamental skills if we hand them every piece of learning or hold their hands through every learning event. We must trust them and give them the space to figure it out.

  1. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is the face–to–face conversation.

In 2020, educators were forced to go virtual within the course of a weekend. There were bumps and bruises. Everyone jumped into another level of teaching and learning that no one was prepared for.  We all had to learn and adapt through our failures and mistakes.

The biggest takeaway from the test flight into virtual learning was that students MUST feel connected and be able to communicate and collaborate. They need time outside of lectures. They need time to be kids by themselves. When faced with a year (or more) of hybrid learning, the number one priority should be keeping kids connecting and collaborating. This was my primary draw to Agile. Kids would work in teams to be connected as much as possible. Now, we have opened the field to different types of schools and pedagogies that do not require all students in a classroom. Not all of my students are face-to-face. Some move back and forth, and others stay home all year. They are connected, though; through the power of zoom, they get to look each other in the face when brainstorming, learning, and executing their plan. They are connected on a human level and get to communicate openly with kids their age in a meaningful way.

  1. Working software is the primary measure of progress.

Learning is messy when done right. It’s always nice when we can tie up a lesson in a beautiful bow and hang it on the classroom walls. Often that kind of learning shows superficial knowledge and no deep understanding. The goal is real learning, not beautiful decorations. Like in Agile, when software is successful, it works, and the same is true for learning. Learning is successful when it drives further learning. Learning can be seen when students can build connections and apply their knowledge. Building schema and connections are the primary measures of progress.

  1. Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

The days are long, but the years are short. That’s how most teachers and students will describe a regular school year. At some points, we cannot believe it’s only Tuesday, and then suddenly it’s May. Content and skills need to be taught and evaluated at a consistent pace, not breakneck racing through content. Although projects are broken into increments, we do not want our students to race through and burn out. It is the teacher’s responsibility to teach time management to students so they can break content and skills development into a consistent pace. This can be done by modeling, asking probing questions, or simply by working on the Kanban board. A Kanban board is a visual way to track the movement of tasks. It allows clear transparency and communication between student teams and teachers.  The movement of cards, checklists, and deadlines moves the students forward. They can visually see what each group member is doing, who is moving quickly, and who may need a nudge.

Again, this is consistent with delivering at checkpoints throughout a unit, ensuring work is being accomplished consistently. Students also need the time between focused and diffused thinking. There is value in letting minds wander and big ideas sink in.

  1. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.

Good design is essential to building intrinsic learning environments and scaffolding future-ready skills. Agile unit design is different from traditional design because it begins with a Wide-Open Question that the students are driven to answer.  These are different from traditional questions because they do not have to be based on the content. These questions are open-ended enough that students can find multiple ways to solve the problem even when applying the same content. This allows personalization of learning because students are invited to bring their interests and schema to the problem-solving effort. 

Another important part of Agile design is real-world application. This helps empower and motivate students because their learning is directly applied to the world around them. They know the WHY of each piece of knowledge and know their learning has a purpose. Instead of learning for a test, they can see how acquiring new knowledge and working through the unit will affect their lives immediately.  

These two pieces of Agile unit design engage students, build independence, and let them know that the teacher trusts them to find their own solutions. These changes from traditional unit planning help the attention to excellence because the students are intrinsically motivated to learn and problem-solve. 

  1. Simplicity — the art of maximizing the amount of work not done — is essential.

When teachers get their first job, they are handed a scope and sequence and told to teach it all. Not long into the education journey, any reasonable teacher realizes that you cannot teach all of the material, and certainly, kids will not LEARN all of the material. This is the full realization of the 10th principle. Simplify content. Simplify skills. What is essential for students to understand? What connections must be made? Pick one of two big ideas that students must know and plan from there. Make these big ideas the center of your wide-open question.  Students then launch on their learning journey by pulling the essential information, As they learn the basics, they will notice that they cannot solve the problem with the bare minimum knowledge, and they will begin to pull more knowledge as they need it.  Everything cannot be taught, but real learning can happen when students are set in the right direction and able to determine what they must know to answer the questions.

  1. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams

Each student is an individual with their own life, learning styles, and skills. Each brings something nuanced and unique to every situation that they enter into. Why, then, is it okay to teach them all the same?

 When each team self-organizes, they are a new unit the world has yet to experience. Their combined skills and personalities bring them unimagined advantages as well as disadvantages. While I believe I am fairly smart, I have no idea how to optimize learning for that exact team, at that space in their lives, during that unit of study. The only ones that can unlock that magic are the kids themselves. As long as clear, simple goals are set, the students can find their unique paths.

For formally trained teachers, this can be incredibly hard. Letting go of the reins and watching students veer. Giving agency and letting decision-making happen when you know it is not the clearest path, but that is part of the learning. That is life learning because education is not about content. It is about learning how to live in the world. Self-organizing teams that must continuously deliver results travel their path toward success.

  1. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

Reflection is the heart of learning. As students learn, they need to be explicitly taught how and why to reflect. This is often left off the table for other skills or more content, but this is a mistake. How do we know if we are learning if we never reflect?

The team must communicate what they are doing, what works or doesn’t, and what the future may hold. The Kanban board aids students in reflection because it makes communication transparent. The students know who is doing what, when, and how. They see movement through their project, and as they communicate on the board, it forces them to think of the “HOW’ and “WHY” together and by themselves. When reflection becomes part of the culture of learning, students automatically use it as a tool to adjust their behavior and eliminate the excess. No one that takes time to reflect on their progress keeps the inefficient parts.

In my classroom, we keep a reflection journal as well. Students reflect on their progress at the end of each month, project, and unit. They create a personalized Google Site where they can be honest in their reflections. At the end of the year, they are asked to go back to the beginning, read their thoughts as they move through the year, and take time to recognize how much they have grown.

Bringing the ideas and principles of Agile into education will immediately change the culture, processes, and attitudes toward a traditional education. Instead of waiting for top-down change and educational bureaucracies’ permission, we must bring these ideas and practices into classrooms immediately.

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Jessica Cavallaro for Intrepid Ed News.

Jessica Cavallaro

Jessica Cavallaro is the co-founder of The Agile Mind, which interweaves Agile frameworks into K-12 education. She is passionate about the benefits of project based learning and creating purposeful education to drive innovation through inquiry. She is an advocate for developing systems that give students agency. Jessica earned her Bachelor’s degree at Pace University and Master’s in Education from Mercy College.

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